Novels in L.R. Wright's Karl Alberg series:
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Other books by L.R. Wright:
L.R. Wright was a journalist long before she was a novelist. And it shows. Her professional curiosity makes her a challenging interview: just as we ease into talking about her writing and her career, she neatly takes back the interviewer's chair, asking about my writing and my career. She is charming, forthright, but obviously most comfortable in the driver's seat of a writing encounter.
Not that this should be a surprise: a dozen novels into her second career, Wright has the professional journalist's sense of discipline and research. "I sort of try for five pages which is 1250 words a day," says Wright. Though, "sometimes I get more."
Though Wright has written four mainstream novels and is close to finishing a fifth, she is best known for her Karl Alberg series of mysteries. The first of these, The Suspect, published in 1985, won the Edgar Award for best novel. Two later Alberg mysteries, A Chill Rain in January (1990) and Mother Love (1995) won Arthur Ellis Awards.
Born in 1939, Laurali Rose Wright has been "Bunny" to her friends and family for as long as she can remember. Thinking that Bunny wasn't an appropriate moniker for a novelist, her first publisher encouraged her to use her initials rather than the nickname she was known by. "Laurali Rose" was never a possibility: one school year of using Laurali was enough to tell her that it wasn't a name she could answer to: even if it was hers.
Considering the path Wright's career has taken, dropping the "Bunny," -- at least professionally -- was probably a good move. Best known for her mystery novels, one has to wonder if "Bunny Wright" would have been as widely read as "L.R. Wright" has been. "I'd have to be writing a different kind of book," Wright jokes now.
Wright's most recent crime fiction novel, Kidnap, is the first in the author's Edwina Henderson series. Constant readers will know that the well-loved Karl Alberg character retired in Acts of Murder (1997). Wright says that Alberg, "had an epiphany and he just wanted a new life. He wanted to do something different." Gone but not forgotten: Wright says it's likely she'll bring Alberg back in a new context, but -- for the moment -- it seems likely he's solved his last mystery.
Edwina Henderson is, in some ways, the author's crime solver for the new millennium. Wright says that when she started the Alberg series in 1985, there were no women Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) staff sergeants in all of Canada. In talking to women in the RCMP, Wright knows that this has now changed. "They've really made progress," says Wright. "So it was time to bring in an important character who was a female."
The Henderson character was introduced in Acts of Murder, though, at the time, Wright didn't know she'd be moving the new sergeant into the top spot in the series. In Kidnap, Henderson is at the helm of the Sechelt RCMP detachment and must unravel a case involving a five-year-old child while battling for control of a somewhat resentful detachment.
L.R. Wright lives in Vancouver: just a ferry ride away from the fictional town she's created out of the real hamlet of Sechelt, British Columbia.
Linda Richards: Your work is compared to that of Ruth Rendell and P.D. James quite often, isn't it?
L.R. Wright: Yes. And that's very flattering. But it gives me hope because they are -- respectively -- 10 and 20 years older than I am. So I figure that if they're still hard at it, then maybe I will be too.
You haven't written crime fiction exclusively.
That's right: I've written four novels that are mainstream fiction. Actually five. I have one that I've been working on for the last couple of years but it's not quite finished yet. Alternating with work on Kidnap.
How many books were there in the Karl Alberg series?
Nine. And in the ninth one, this character [Edwina Henderson] was introduced, because she became his sergeant. That was the in the last Alberg book [Acts of Murder].
So you were thinking ahead. Did you know she was going to have her own series?
No. I knew I wanted Alberg to have a female sergeant, because by then I'd spoken to quite a few female officers and when I started the series there wasn't a single female [RCMP] staff sergeant in the whole country.
Really? What year was that?
That's not that long ago!
No. They've really made progress. So it was time to bring in an important character who was a female. I didn't even know I was going to have him retire until I was working on the book. And then the two things sort of happened together. And I figured, well, what now? I'll have her take over and we'll see what happens from there.
He was just tired?
No. He had an epiphany and he just wanted a new life. He wanted to do something different.
I guess he can make appearances though?
Somebody -- I think my editor -- said that would be a really bad idea. And at the moment I don't have any plans for that. I want to go back to him, but not in the context of the RCMP.
Was it sad to retire a character?
Well, no. because I haven't really retired him. I've just moved him over here. And when I finish the book I'm working on, I want to go back and write about him. It was sort of sad to lose the sergeant in the series who I'd become quite fond of. But his wife left him and he found it necessary to retire and go to Vancouver and sort of stay outside her apartment and hope he could change her mind. [Laughs] I have no idea what happened to that, but that was his plan.
When you started out writing that book, you didn't know you were retiring Alberg?
Was it a surprise for you, then? Or what happened?
Well, the characters often give the impression of surprising you. Of course they don't really. Your subconscious mind is brewing away all the time and doing all this stuff, but sometimes it does feel as though they've decided on their own to go about a certain kind of business. In this case it had something to do with the female sergeant coming. And he didn't know what to think of this, at first. He had not expected to get a female sergeant. Didn't like it much. But he became very respectful of her and her abilities. That sort of got his mind going in all sorts of ways and he literally had an epiphany and went and told his wife that he was going to retire. She was pretty angry because he hadn't bothered to confer with her. But they made up.
Do you plot very heavily in advance of writing?
No. Not at all.
You know, in crime fiction especially, that surprises me.
Yeah, I know. [Laughs] It surprises me too. But I sort of invent the characters first and then follow them around, at the computer, and see how they interact with one another. And, eventually, things begin to happen. I don't remember why I decided on a kidnapping for this book, but I do remember that the first things I wrote were the scenes between the two little children. At the time I wrote them I didn't know what was going to happen and I didn't know to which child it was going to happen. In fact, at first I think I had the other one kidnapped and I went back and rewrote it because it wasn't working.
So you'll go back and rework things.
Oh yes. In fact, the first draft of this book had a whole subplot that just got completely cut. It was confusing, it didn't add anything to the story. And so it just went. And that's not a painful experience. Maybe it's because I was a journalist for so long, but I don't have any problem cutting. If things aren't working they go. But sometimes it takes a while to really know if they're working or not. And to decide if it's not working because I'm not doing a good enough job with it, or just because it's basically not fitting in with what I'm doing with the rest of it.
Do you have any writers in the crime fiction genre that you particularly admire?
I do. I have a lot. And I'm finding new ones all the time. But I very much like Ruth Rendell and P.D. James and I like Laurence Gough and there's an American named David L. Lindsey whose work I really admire. Mostly because of his sense of place. He writes about Texas. I've never been there, but there's such a strong sense of the place in his novels that I feel like I have been there. He's very good at plotting and he has complicated plots, which I really admire.
Your books also have a strong sense of place. Are they always set in and around Sechelt?
Yes. Sometimes parts of the books take place in Vancouver. And I think a couple of times I had things happening on the Prairies, which were the past of some of the characters. But normally, yeah: it's the Sunshine Coast.
Tell me how you ended up being "Bunny."
My parents started to call me that before I was born. And they just continued after I was born. I don't know why that particular nickname.
So always Bunny?
Yes. And when I was in grade three I went to a new school and thought: This is a chance for me to have a more grown up name. I wanted to use Laurali, which is my real name. That was fine, except there was another girl in the class named Laura. Every time the teacher called either one of us we'd both stand up. I felt like an idiot and besides, I wasn't comfortable with "Laurali," so I went back to using Bunny. But publishers don't like "Bunny." For obvious reasons. [Laughs]
You were a journalist. In the prairies?
Yes. Mostly in Calgary. For The Calgary Herald.
Education mostly. But I did provincial politics and city hall and just about everything.
When was that?
In the 1970s.
Did you stop in order to write novels?
Well, yes. My husband was offered a job in Edmonton and he said: Why don't I take it and we can move because I don't think you're ever going to quit your job otherwise. Then maybe you'll write a book. So we did. And I wrote my first book which was called Neighbors.
Good for him!
The thing is, I really loved being a journalist. I really loved that job. I think it would have been very hard to leave it. And I certainly couldn't do the two things together. It just wasn't possible. And I had two little kids too.
And then from Edmonton...?
We were in Edmonton for about two and a half years and then we moved back to Vancouver and have been here ever since.
Why did you choose to set the books on the Sunshine Coast?
Because the first one -- I didn't know it was going to be a mystery, let alone the first one in a series. I'd had an idea. I was having a conversation with some friends and we were talking about the old people in our lives and the things they were up to. And somebody had left their husband and moved in with someone else and they were in their 70s and we said: You think they'd know better. And somebody said: I guess what we're capable of as young people we're capable of when we're old. I'll bet they're just as capable of murder, even. I immediately had this vision of a little old man whacking another little old man over the head. And I thought: I must write this book.
So I started to write it, but I knew I needed a town that was so small because I knew that the person was not a criminal. You know, that this was a crime of passion. They had to live in a town that was so small that these two people couldn't avoid each other. And the only town I knew that was that small was Sechelt. So that's why I set it there. And then when it turned into a mystery and I wanted to do more, I could have moved him [Karl Alberg] to another detachment, but I guess I had really enjoyed that: creating a fictional town, even though it's a real one.
Have you gone out there on research trips?
Yes. I go out there three or four times a year.
I wonder if some of your readers go and visit the town.
They do. I've been told by the librarian that people come into the library and want to know where Cassandra the librarian [in my stories] lives. And there is a real house -- I borrowed somebody's house -- so there is a house and people go look at it. And they go look at the RCMP detachment. It's kind of weird.
But it must be a nice feeling to know that your creations have had that kind of meaning for people.
Yes. It is.
And it's a nice place to visit. It's not like you picked a yucky town to set the stories in. But it is a small place. How big is Sechelt? Maybe 10,000?
Oh no. You can walk from one end to the other in five minutes. Then there are people who live around the town, but it's really small.
This book has just come out, hasn't it?
Yes. It's barely out.
And when was the last mystery novel?
Two years ago.
Do you aim for that: one every two years?
No, I really aim for one a year. But I wrote another book in between. The one that isn't quite finished yet.
Is there an ETA for that book?
This summer, I hope.
And it's not crime fiction?
No. It's mainstream fiction. As opposed to genre fiction.
You're writing all the time. Do you have a word goal a day? Or...?
I sort of try for five pages which is 1250 words a day. Something like that. And sometimes I get more. I really do it more in scenes. I'll have a scene in my head to write. And then I'll do that. And if it leads to another one immediately, I'll go on.
Do you work on a computer?
Yes, I do. You know, I can't imagine not now. Literally everything is easier. Even physically. I can remember when I was still typing them. The last typing of the book would take several days and my back would be killing me at the end of the day. But now you don't need to type the whole thing, for one thing. And for another, it's so easy to move stuff around. It's wonderful.
It is a wonderful tool. And yet I talk to writers who still work in longhand.
I know. Well, I do a lot of that. I take notes in longhand and I plan my day in longhand. That relationship between the pen and the paper is still very important. But the computer is so much faster than my hand that it's such a great tool. | May 2000
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.